Digital 'Spies': No Place to Hide?


If you feel like someone is watching you, you're probably right.

In the latest manifestation of electronic ogling, police in dozens of cities large and small are enlisting citizens and businesses to register the locations of their private security cameras for possible use in crime investigations.

Police use mapping technology to match registered cameras to crime scenes, then ask camera owners for access to possible video evidence. Unlike the closed-circuit surveillance systems used in many big cities, the registry cameras generally are not networked, so police cannot monitor a live feed of the images.

About 100 U.S. cities now have the registries, estimates Stan Lewis, editor of Miami-based SecurityHive, which covers the security industry. More than a dozen cities in Florida, California, the Northeast and the Midwest have joined the trend in recent months.

So far, the registries are voluntary: Citizens choose whether or not to join. But a proposal to make registry enrollment mandatory in New Jersey has generated controversy.

And as with many new digital surveillance innovations, the registries leave unresolved a number of now-familiar concerns over privacy and data retention as technology continues to outpace policy, regulation and legislation.

The registry growth is a small niche in the booming security industry sectors of smart surveillance and video analytics, a $13.5 billion global market in 2012 that is predicted to triple by 2020.

And the registry trend is driven in part by the proliferation of cheap security cameras. High-definition, 2.1 megapixel camera systems now sell for less than $100, and low-def versions go for as little as $25.

HD cameras produce vast quantities of data. The highest quality images can eat up a full terabyte of storage in barely a week. Some owners use Cloud storage since nearly all units have storage limits. Generally, police ask camera owners to retain data for at least a month.

Cameras Helped in Philly

But are the registries effective against crime? Anecdotes are plentiful, but broader data is scarce.

Philadelphia's SafeCam registry made news in early November when several of its nearly 4,500 cameras captured a street abduction in the Germantown neighborhood. Clues drawn from the video helped lead to the rescue of the victim and arrest of her assailant a few days later in Maryland.

Security cameras certainly have played key roles in a number of other marquee investigations in recent years.

Camera footage produced early clues in the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and helped identify a suspect in a failed car-bombing in New York's Times Square in 2010. A restaurant security camera in Los Angeles captured the speeding car of journalist Michael Hastings moments before his mysterious fatal crash in June 2013.

Philadelphia officials say SafeCam evidence has been used in nearly 300 crimes since 2011. Fremont, Calif., a Bay Area city of 220,000 that became a regional registry pioneer in 2012, touts a 20 percent decline in burglaries since its registry was created.

St. Petersburg, Fla., South Bend, Ind., and Springfield and Darien, Ill., all have announced plans to create registries in recent weeks. Other places creating registries this year include Hamilton, Ontario; Lancaster, Pa., and St. John the Baptist Parish in Louisiana.

Registries are particularly popular in northern California. San Jose, Stockton, Sacramento, Vallejo, Sausalito and Rohnert Park all recently created registries.

The trend also is taking hold in the Northeast, where Garfield and Cape May, N.J. now have registries.

Voluntary Is Key to ACLU

New Jersey Assemblyman Ralph Caputo introduced controversial legislation a month ago that would make it easier for municipalities to create registries—but requires security-cam owners to register them with police. Those who don't would be fined $100.

“Making registry mandatory really is pushing the envelope, and I think you're seeing pushback on that idea,” says Lewis, the SecurityHive editor.

“We don't have any problem with voluntary registries,” says Jay Stanley, a privacy and technology policy analyst with the ACLU. “But we have a big problem when you make them mandatory. That would smack of the Soviet Union, which forced people to register devices like photocopy machines.”

St. Petersburg and other cities have tried to allay concerns by exempting camera footage from public records requests and assuring owners that they have a right to withhold the images, even from police. But many include this template “terms of use” proviso: “Any footage containing or related to criminal activity may be collected (by police) for use as evidence during any stage of a criminal proceeding.”

And privacy advocates point out that a court is liable to issue a warrant when police are aware of evidence collected from a particular camera.

Says Lewis, “You can't require someone to become a witness to a crime, can you?”

Live Monitoring a Problem

Advocates differentiate between active and passive use of security cameras. They generally are troubled by real-time monitoring of live feeds at a police command center—the sort of closed circuit network surveillance common in New York, Chicago and other big cities around the world. Closed circuit monitoring also is common in spaces where multitudes gather: museums and tourism venues, airports and trains stations, bridges and tunnels, sports facilities, hospitals and malls.

The advocates say most real-time monitoring is ineffective and susceptible to abuse—for example, by a command center cop who targets blacks or Muslims.

“We think a voluntary registry is positive because it serves as a disincentive, taking the pressure off local police agencies to spend money to put up their own cameras, then monitor them 24/7,” says Harley Geiger, advocacy director and senior counsel in Washington, D.C., for the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology.

“We see voluntary registries as a much better alternative to real-time data feeds.”

The registries have met little official opposition. One exception was Max Anderson, a local councilman who spoke out in June against a proposed registry in Berkeley, Calif.

“You're lucky if you can walk out your door without being observed, tracked,” he said during a council debate, according to “There's not much of the Fourth Amendment left. Where does it end? The fact of the matter is that it doesn't end, and you never get back those freedoms once you give them away.”

He did not prevail. The Berkeley council voted 7-1 to send the proposal to the city manager and the Police Review Commission for further action.

Global Phenomenon

The deployment of surveillance cameras has mushroomed since the terrorist attacks of 2001. An accurate count of how many there are in the U.S. is probably impossible, but the number is in the millions, including both public and private devices.

Surveillance systems have long been popular in global capital cities. In Madrid, the ubiquitous surveillance inspired an artist to make a political statement earlier this year by mounting 150 fake cameras on the side of a building.

The United Kingdom had an estimated 5.9 million closed-circuit security cameras last year, including 1 million in London alone, which began building its “ring of steel” CCTV system in the 1990s. Even Astana, Kazakhstan, a capital city of 650,000 people, recently announced plans to install a network of 30,000 surveillance cameras by 2017.

Big American cities are heavily invested in camera surveillance, as well.

Chicago is the national leader with an estimated 25,000 cameras—many of them privately owned—connected through a vast fiber-optic network. Its Operation Virtual Shield was launched in 2006 in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security, which has paid most of the $220 million cost.

New York has some 5,000 networked cameras, including a mix of city-owned devices and those operated by private “stakeholders” such as Wall Street firms as part of the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, begun in 2008 and expanded to Midtown in 2009.

And New Orleans has begun expanding citywide a camera registry program that was begun in October 2012 in the French Quarter, Marigny and Central Business District. Its database of 1,300 registered cameras is expected to grow significantly.

Is Surveillance Inevitable?

Berkeley's Anderson may be fighting an uphill battle against digital snooping. Americans are subjected to data collection via red-light cameras, license plate readers, police dash cams, drones, facial recognition imaging, and more.

“We're almost becoming a society that expects cameras to be watching us,” says Lewis of SecurityHive.

“If it really sinks in to people that they may be watched by police anywhere they go, it will have a chilling effect on how we use public spaces,” says the ACLU's Stanley. “But I don't think it's inevitable that we face a future of mass surveillance everywhere and at all times. Sometimes people tell me, 'Oh, Jay, you can't stop technology.' But we as a society can shape how it's deployed.”

Here are a few other recent surveillance innovations, both high- and low-tech:

  • Skywatch mobile surveillance towers, used by New York City police during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, are now showing up across the country. Hydraulics elevate a command cabin 25 feet. Manufactured by Oregon-based FLIR Systems, the devices cost about $125,000, though many are purchased with Homeland Security grants or as discounted military surplus. Among other places, they have been used recently during mass gatherings and in mall parking lots in Clearwater, Fla., Myrtle Beach, S.C., Norman, Okla., and in the Texas cities of Arlington and Garland and at Baylor University in Waco.
  • PublicEye, a real-time data-fusion platform for smart phones and tablets, is being used by several police and fire departments in the Boston area. Manufactured by Zco of Nashua, N.H., the software feeds various information streams to an officer's phone at the scene of an emergency—allowing the officer, for example, to monitor interior security camera feeds during a school shooting.
  • Persistent Surveillance Systems of Dayton, Ohio, is marketing “wide area motion imagery” systems that use airplane-mounted high-definition cameras to give police a record of every movement on the ground over a 25-square-mile area for up to six hours.
  • Knightscope of Silicon Valley has created K2, a mobile robot security guard that stands 5 feet tall, weighs 300 pounds, and is equipped with cameras, license plate readers, microphones and other data-gathering gadgets.

David J. Krajicek (@djkrajicek) is a contributing editor of The Crime Report and co-editor of Crime & Justice News. He writes The Justice Story for the New York Daily News and is a 2014 fellow with the Fund for Investigative Journalism. He welcomes comments from readers.

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